False Alarm: The (Relatively) Good News Behind a New MacArthur-Funded Documentary Project

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced a new investment in documentary film with a four-year, $5 million grant to the International Documentary Association to establish the IDA Documentary/Journalism Project. Normally, this would be an innocuous announcement, but since we're talking about MacArthur here—a funder that's been in major flux lately—additional context is in order.

Earlier this year, the foundation announced it would discontinue direct support of individual documentary projects. Instead, rather than directly funding the projects itself, MacArthur pledged to increase funding to "nonfiction media producers through new and existing partner organizations."

Yet despite reassuring statements from Kathy Im, the director of journalism and media, and MacArthur's pledge to actually increase funding to partners, filmmakers nonetheless worried that a smaller percentage of funding would flow toward individual films.

Which brings us back to the foundation's recent announcement.

As promised, MacArthur cut a check to a third party, the International Documentary Association, affirming its longstanding commitment to the documentary form. The fund supports $1 million annually for four years in production and development grants to nonfiction filmmakers as well as support, mentorship and access to resources for grantees and the broader documentary field.

The project will engage an advisory committee made up of filmmakers and journalists to provide 10 production grants of between $75,000 to $100,000 for films in production. Additionally, the project will provide 10 to 15 development grants in a range of $10,000 to $15,000 each to films in early stages. Submission information, funding criteria and other details should be available soon.

Okay, so we now have a bunch of numbers to work from. Did filmmakers' fears come to pass?

The answer is "yes"—if you embrace the benchmark established by Cynthia Wade, a previous fund recipient. Upon learning of MacArthur's changes earlier this year, she said, "With MacArthur leaving the direct funding stage, filmmakers will have fewer opportunities to secure major grants of $100,000 or more." And indeed, the funding ceiling for the IDC project productions is exactly $100,000.

Compare this to MacArthur's direct funding of productions back in January of 2016. One film, After Spring, netted $140,000. Finding America and Survivors, scored $200,000. In fact, 17 of the 19 winners received $100,000 or higher.

What's more, the January cycle awarded $2.5 million in a single year. The new IDC investment, on the other hand, stands at $5 million across four years; that's $1.25 million per year.

But since we're talking numbers, a few caveats are in order.

First off, the IDC project is but one in MacArthur's grantmaking portfolio. MacArthur has a track record of funding partner organizations, including POV, Kartemquin, Firelight Media, Independent Television Service (ITVS), Sundance Documentary Fund and Tribeca Film Institute. Some of these partnerships could yield higher payouts to individual productions.

What's more, one of the benefits of giving less to individual projects is that funders can support more films than in the past. The IDC announcement corroborates this hypothesis. MacArthur allocated $5 million to be spread across approximately 25 projects—10 in production and 10 to 15 for films in "early stages." That's roughly six more projects than its direct-funding cycle back in January.

If you're one of those six projects who would have otherwise missed out on funding, it's hard to classify MacArthur's shift as bad news, much less a blazing inferno.